Designing Women -- Female Architects In Washington Have Worked Hard To Build Their Careers

In the early '40s, when she was an eighth-grader in West Seattle, Jane Hastings wrote about what she was going to be when she grew up.

The composition prompted the teacher to keep her pupil after school.

``I just don't want to see you hurt,'' the woman confided. ``They'll never let you be an architect.''

At that time, probably only two women were architects in the state.

But it was too late to dissuade the girl. Not a doghouse was being built in her Fauntleroy neighborhood that Jane didn't visit every day on the way home from school.

``I was fascinated by construction,'' she recalls.

Five years later, Hastings found herself the only female in a University of Washington architecture class of 200. She could never skip a lecture, unlike her peers, because the professor would immediately notice her absence.

In 1953, Hastings became an architect - the eighth woman to do so since the state began licensing in 1919.

She and a handful of others were out there alone for years. Ten years ago there were still only 43 women architects in Washington.

Their numbers are still small, but are growing. More women around the country are studying to become architects, winning important jobs in firms or opening their own. Women's membership in the American Institute of Architects has jumped from 250 to 3,000 in the last decade. They now represent over 8 percent of the total membership.

The trend is so significant, Architecture Magazine will devote its October 1991 issue to women in architecture. The magazine is soliciting work from women around the country to be judged for inclusion in the issue.

At the end of last year, there were about 179 women registered as architects in Washington, or a little over 3 percent of the 5,095 total. The percentage of women in the UW's graduate architecture school stood at 43 percent last spring.

In Seattle, women are helping to design the Interstate 90 freeway lid, apartment buildings, warehouses, day-care centers and houses. They are restoring and remodeling historic buildings around the city.

A 36-year-old female architect is project director of the new Seattle Art Museum, a $60 million project now under construction downtown.

``Women are in the process of playing bigger and better roles in the profession,'' says Marcel Quimby, national chair of the Women in Architecture committee for the American Association of Architects.

``They are on the edge right now of taking strong leadership roles. In Chicago and New York, it's already happened.''

On the edge, but not comfortably over the top.

Women's gains in architecture are impressive, but inconsistent. Architects say it's still more difficult for women than men to get ahead in large firms, capture the plum projects and win recognition for their work.

A reader poll last fall in Progressive Architecture, a national magazine, revealed that ``in the field of architecture women are offered fewer opportunities and receive less compensation than do men with similar experience.'' This was true, said both female and male respondents, when it came to professional opportunities, recognition and rewards.

``The architectural profession is a little behind other professions in which women have made strides,'' says Quimby.

To this day, no woman has been president of the AIA, founded in 1857 - even though Louise Blanchard Bethune was admitted as the first female member in 1888. No woman has received an AIA Gold Medal, architecture's highest national award - and so special only 49 have been bestowed since 1907.

``Attitudes do not keep up with events, or events with attitudes. Thus for the vastly increased and increasing number of women in this profession, the times are peculiar and uneven,'' writes Ellen Perry Berkeley in ``Architecture, A Place for Women,'' a book published by The Smithsonian Institution late last year.

Certainly, the mood in Seattle varies.

``I've never felt my gender was an obstacle,'' says Kathleen Scott, project manager for the new art museum. ``I could always do whatever I wanted to . . . I can't speak to what the general attitude is because I don't pay that much attention.'' Scott previously was an architect/construction administrator at two large Seattle firms, TRA and The McKinley Architects. She's never heard of another female with her speciality in architecture.

``The climate has changed incredibly in the last 10 years,'' says architect Susan Boyle.

When gender bias happens nowadays, ``. . . it's so extraordinarily backward you think who could be thinking that way,'' she says. Her firm, co-owned with Bob Wagoner, specializes in historic preservation and public works. She and Wagoner have restored and remodeled Architecture Hall at the University of Washington and two of the city's Carnegie libraries.

But others believe the glass ceiling is real.

``My perception is it isn't genderless,'' says Denice Hunt, an architect and urban designer in the Seattle Department of Community Development.

``It's not overt discrimination. It's very subtle. There are lots of networking situations that men build within the profession, that women don't seem to have ready access to. . .''

Hunt wrote in a recent newsletter published by the Seattle chapter of the AIA: ``Lack of opportunity in private practice, has led many black and other minority architects (and women architects as well, probably for similar reasons) to find architectural careers in government or other employment.''

Hunt, 42, is an African American who earned her graduate degree in architecture from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She left a private Seattle firm for city government when she looked around one day and couldn't find a woman or African American who'd made it as far as she wanted to go.

``That was sort of disheartening,'' she says.

Now she helps determine if large public projects will have an adverse aesthetic impact on the city. More and more often the design teams for these projects have a female member. But she still sees ``resistance at the top'' in many of Seattle's larger architectural firms.

Another part of the problem, says architect and Harvard graduate Janet Donelson, is the sensitivity of new client relationships. Decision makers are very susceptible to making judgments about whom a 50-year-old male client will accept; ``No way could they tolerate a 35-year-old woman as their project manager,'' she says they assume.

Donelson, a member of the state architectural licensing board, is another talented woman who left a large private firm for more opportunity in the public sector: a job as projects manager at the University of Washington.

At The Callison Partnership, one of the owners, Dave Olson, says they'd ``like nothing better'' than to have more senior women. But it takes experience to reach the top, he says. The numbers of women with that kind of resume are small. The firm also doesn't want to set people up for failure by promoting them too quickly just to have role models, he says.

Ten out of 35 project architects at the firm are women. At the next level up, two of twenty project managers are women. Of the seven principals or owners at the top, one is a woman and she is an interior designer, not an architect.

No women here have yet attained the high public profile enjoyed by a few architects in town who are men. On a national level, a few female stars have emerged. Denise Scott Brown, a principal in Venturi, Rauch and Scott Brown, is often mentioned. The Philadelphia firm designed the new Seattle Art Museum, and she is married to Robert Venturi.

The architect is known for her outspoken opinions on sexism and the star system in architecture.

``I have suggested that the star system, which is unfair to many architects, is doubly hard on women in a sexist environment, and that, at the upper levels of the profession the female architect who works with her husband will be submerged in his reputation,'' she writes in the Smithsonian book.

A female architect in Seattle calls Scott Brown ``a whiner.''

Another reason there aren't many female stars is that the pool to choose from is smaller. And it typically takes years of practice to be entrusted with a huge project.

``Architecture really is an old man's game,'' says architect Fred Bassetti. ``You know you're 50 before a man gets a bigger job. You gotta start doing houses. Then you get a small store or elementary school. Finally by the time you're 40 or 50 you get your first major job. . . .''

Also, some women don't gain a variety of experiences, says Hastings, because ``. . . offices tend to channel them into the more organizational ends of getting the job run and done because they do a good job of it.''

Others surmise maybe women's egos aren't big enough to go after star status, that women just haven't wanted it as badly and they don't toot their own horns.

Jennie Sue Brown has been a partner at Bumgardner Architects since 1974. Her primary role is project manager and program analyzer, specializing in mapping out long-term expansion strategies for clients.

She never hungered to leave a great building behind.

``My aspiration was to solve the problem,'' she says.

In the early days, sometimes it was pretty hard for women architects to even get a job, let alone a star in their crown.

``There were firms in town you didn't go to,'' recalls Carolyn Geise, the 21st woman registered to be an architect in the state and owner of Geise Associates in Architecture Inc.

``They had absolute rules they wouldn't hire a woman. That's why women started their own firms.''

Employers were just afraid, says Hastings. ``They didn't know how to handle it. I don't think they thought we were substandard.''

When one large national firm hired her, the job came with this message from the local boss: ``I'm going to hire you even though the rest of the company is against it. You are going to be the one who determines if we ever hire another woman.'' No pressure there. Or Hastings insists it wasn't intended.

The women who went through these times say they were not discriminated against. It was just a tough, volatile business and they were breaking new ground.

Public understanding was rare. Hastings used to avoid telling people she was an architect because they didn't believe her. If they did, ``they thought it was something cute.''

Then after the women's movement, they decided she must be ``one of those women's libbers.''

``I've never been cute and I've never been a rabble-rouser,'' says the first woman president of the Seattle chapter of the AIA. Hastings and Geise are the only two females in Washington elected Fellows of the AIA for their achievements. Hastings will be the first female chancellor of the national AIA College of Fellows in 1992.

``The fact is we're still a very small percentage of the whole package,'' she says.

Ten women have served on the national AIA board as regional directors. Three have gone on to be vice presidents. One will take office next year. At this point, Hastings is planning to run for president-elect, which no woman has ever done before.

No woman has tried it because ``they knew it was hopeless,'' says Hastings.

Through the years, the American Institute of Architects - this country's premier professional association for architects - has been viewed by some as an old boys' or young boys' club, standoffish toward women and minorities.

Jennie Sue Brown, one of Seattle's two female AIA presidents, stresses ``that's primarily a perception.'' She always felt quite comfortable in the AIA.

In varying degrees the AIA has tried to correct that perception. The ferment of the women's movement in the late '60s and early '70s eventually pushed the group through several hesitations to form a Women in Architecture committee to shepherd the cause.

It's seems a bit late in the '90s, but the committee's long-range goal still is to integrate women more fully into the profession.

There is concern that not enough women architects are joining the AIA, that more women than men may be dropping out of the profession and not receiving recognition for their work.

So the committee is organizing outreach educational and publicity programs about women's contributions to architecture. The WIA also sponsors a national touring exhibit called ``That Exceptional One,'' which celebrates the first 100 years of women's achievements in architecture. For lack of local financial and organizational backing, it will not come to Seattle.

In California, architects support three organizations for women, hold a statewide convention for women architects every year and have recently formed California Women in Environmental Design.

Seattle's attitude toward activism, by contrast, is disjointed, says Carol Simpson, regional liaison for Women In Architecture.

``Everybody's sort of doing their own thing rather than banding together,'' she says.

During the time they're in school, most women still expect to have it all - a profession, children and husband, says Katrina Deines, University of Washington associate dean in the College of Architecture and Urban Planning.

Yet, balancing family with career is one of the biggest struggles for women architects today.

``Women have to figure out how to have a career and still live with themselves as women,'' says Deines.

For that reason, more women are willing to practice architecture in riskier, alternative ways: from home, part-time, free-lancing on a project-by-project basis.

The ``pioneer'' women in Seattle architecture went through the same struggles. Hastings, who eventually started her own firm, delayed marriage until she was 40 and chose not to have children.

Geise was a single parent of two children and, self-employed, worked from her home for years. She designed the kids' tree houses. They earned their allowance by cleaning coffee cups after business meetings. Later, she formed a partnership with Hastings, then went out on her own.

Brown decided to remain single. ``I am in awe of any woman who can have it all. I was never able to do that.''

Now, modern male architects who value the father's role in new ways are confronting some of the same career-vs.-family choices, she says.

And then there's the age-old question: Do women design differently than men?

Most architects say no. Architecture as art - the integrity of design, the balance of texture and color, the relationship of volumes to each other - is genderless.

If women bring a strength to the field, people say it is a sensitivity to people, ability to listen and negotiate. But, they add quickly, there are many fine male architects who possess these skills, too.

Jan Gleason, an architect who designs for special-needs populations, sees her work as ``very nurturing because it's taking care of people both physically and spiritually. . . .

``That is a traditional feminine thing to do.''

But her real hope is that those characteristics known as feminine and masculine will disappear, `` . . . that we'll all be able to express those parts of ourselves.''

Geise - who often tired of being looked at first for gender, when she wanted to concentrate on the work - believes that's already happening. Architecture requires a broad range of skills that cross many lines. And society is now accepting multifaceted people, she says.

``We are very nearly to the point where it no longer will be news to be a woman architect.''

Very nearly, but not quite.